The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.
The recently renamed Rays are arguably the deepest organization in baseball when it comes to talent: quality, quantity, balance, depth up and down the line, emerging arms, you name it.
No other system had as many players in MiLB.com's recent preseason Top 50 prospect package -- five, to be exact. And all of them (third baseman Evan Longoria, shortstop Reid Brignac and pitchers David Price, Wade Davis and Jake McGee) are likely to start the '08 season at Double-A Montgomery or higher, making them just a phone call away from the big leagues.
Granted, in an American League East that features the Red Sox and Yankees, it's going to take more than a boatload of top prospects to leap from last place to playoff contention, but it's a pretty good start.
If nothing else, Rays fans can look forward to a homegrown team worth cheering for, now and for years to come.
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:
Reid Brignac, SS
A 2004 second-round pick from Louisiana, Brignac is a tremendous defensive shortstop who can also put up numbers across the board. After earning California League MVP honors in 2006, batting .326 with 21 homers, 83 RBIs and 12 steals at Visalia, he moved up to Montgomery and hit .260 with 17 homers, 81 RBIs and 15 steals -- not shabby by any means.
"All the expectations were so high that when you hit .260 it could be disappointing, but we weren't disappointed at all," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics explained. "He made nice strides defensively and when you look at what he did in the Southern League, he ranked right up there with all of his peers. He's a young player on the rise and will continue to focus on using the whole field with his bat."
Audio: Brignac belts a walk-off blasts
Audio: Brignac's go-ahead single in the ninth
Wade Davis, RHP
The Rays' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2007, Davis boasts the organization's best curveball and he used it, along with the rest of his repertoire, to combine for a 2.50 ERA between Class A Advanced Vero Beach and Montgomery. A 2004 third-round pick, he struck out 169 and walked 51 over 158 1/3 total innings.
|ON THE VERGE
Here are some players on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:
• Evan Longoria, 3B -- Incumbent third baseman Akinori Iwamura has already shifted to second in anticipation of Longoria's spring coronation. The Southern League MVP in 2007, Longoria hit .307 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs and is the team's top prospect in both average and power.
• Justin Ruggiano, OF -- Acquired from the Dodgers in 2006 as an apparent throw-in in the deal for Toby Hall, Ruggiano emerged as the Durham Bulls' MVP in '07, hitting .309 with 20 homers, 73 RBIs and 26 steals -- a rare 20-20 season in the International League. He won't work his way into the starting outfield in Tampa Bay but should be a solid fourth or fifth guy who can play all three spots.
"He's big and strong and comes right at you and has learned to throw his curve and changeup for strikes," Lukevics said of the 22-year-old. "His delivery will allow him to be more consistent and locate better, and that's what we look forward to in 2008."
Audio: Davis throws a no-hitter
Glenn Gibson, LHP
The Rays acquired Gibson in the offseason from the Nationals for outfielder Elijah Dukes, so this spring is the first chance that Lukevics and company get to see him up close. The 20-year-old is the son of former Major League pitcher Paul Gibson, and he learned well from his dad.
Drafted out of high school in the fourth round in 2006, he posted a 3.10 ERA in 12 starts at short-season Vermont last year, striking out 58 in as many innings and walking only 15 before being shut down with mono. Not a power pitcher, he uses a plus changeup and curveball as out pitches.
Lukevics was impressed with his first look at Gibson's side sessions, particularly his solid delivery and ability to change speeds.
Audio: Gibson fans his seventh
Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
The Greg Maddux comparisons abound for this 2005 fourth-round pick from Des Moines, Iowa. Hellickson, who was drafted out of high school and turns 21 in April, went 13-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 21 starts at Class A Columbus last year, limiting opponents to a .214 average over 111 innings after getting a late start due to a sore arm.
Featuring a low-90s fastball and curveball, he was the top prospect in the short-season New York-Penn League in 2006 with a 2.43 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 16 walks in 77 innings.
"With him, the key is repetition of his delivery, keeping his shoulder closed and driving the lead shoulder to the catcher to give him one arm action," Lukevics said of Hellickson, who should open '08 in the Vero Beach rotation. "All the stuff is there, all the tools."
Audio: Hellickson snaps off a curve
Desmond Jennings, OF
The consensus pick for best athlete in the system, Jennings hit .315 with nine homers, 37 RBIs and 45 steals in 99 games for Columbus before a knee injury (now healed) ended his season. The 2006 10th-rounder is a gap hitter to all fields with tremendous speed, a good eye and strong defense, though he is still refining his overall game.
"He has wonderful tools, and through play and individual development he'll sharpen them," Lukevics said. "He can be a complete player with his athleticism."
Audio: Jennings manufactures a run
Chris Mason, RHP
The Southern League Pitcher of the Year went 15-4 with a 2.57 ERA and 136 strikeouts over 161 innings to help Montgomery repeat as league champion. A 2005 second-rounder out of UNC-Greensboro, he has good control of a plus changeup with sink as well as a slider.
"He'll get an opportunity in the [Triple-A] Durham rotation and we're looking forward to his duplicating his Montgomery season," Lukevics said. "Now that he's incorporated a curveball the second half of last season, he throws four pitches for strikes, works fast, holds runners well and is a bulldog type on the mound."
Audio: Mason notches season-high ninth K
Jake McGee, LHP
Drafted in the fifth round in 2004 out of high school in Nebraska, the 21-year-old southpaw is usually linked with his draft classmate Davis, with whom he's pitched since they both signed.
Armed with a mid-90s fastball that's the most potent in the system, he also has a slider and changeup. McGee posted a 2.93 ERA in 21 starts for Vero Beach last summer and a 4.24 ERA in a brief Montgomery promotion. He also totaled 175 strikeouts in 139 innings, good for fourth in the Minors.
"He's dominated at A-ball and now he'll take on Double-A hitters full-time," Lukevics said. "His ability to locate his fastball and throw his curveball and changeup over the plate will be instrumental, but his delivery will allow him to do it."
Audio: McGee is strong through seven
Jeff Niemann, RHP
The 6-foot-9 righty was part of a talented but oft-injured '04 draft class out of Rice that also featured Wade Townsend (first round by Baltimore (2004) and the Rays (2005) and newly minted Minnesota hurler Phil Humber (Mets '04). But 2007 marked the first time that Niemann was healthy enough to put up full-season numbers.
No longer plagued by elbow or shoulder woes, he went 12-6 with a 3.98 ERA in 25 starts at Durham and comes to camp in the best shape he's ever been in, according to Lukevics. That gives the Rays renewed hope he could contribute in the bigs sooner rather than later.
"We're past the injury hurdle, so now it's time for his delivery to be consistently repeated, for him to locate his fastball and throw strikes downhill," Lukevics said of Niemann, who throws a fastball in the low-90s and a good curve. "He has terrific stuff, it's just a matter now of his refining his delivery."
Video: Niemann rings up a ninth K
David Price, LHP
It's finally time to find out if the Price is right. It's been a long wait for Rays fans, who are finally getting to see the top pick in 2007 make his pro debut.
There was little debate over whether the Rays would scoop up the Vanderbilt ace, who was 11-1 with 194 strikeouts for the top-ranked team in the country during the regular season. A consensus College Player of the Year and Golden Spikes winner, the 6-foot-6 22-year-old has it all: a fastball consistently in the mid-90s, an outstanding slider, a good changeup and, to top it all off, tremendous makeup.
So Lukevics is only slightly understating things when he says of the young man whom they've yet to see throw a pro pitch, "If everything everyone says is true, he has a pretty good upside."
Ryan Royster, OF
With all due respect to Florida Marlins outfield prospect John Raynor, who was named South Atlantic League MVP in 2007, Ryan Royster was robbed. Though the Rays may have taken some of the sting away by naming him their own Minor League Player of the Year (over the likes of Longoria), Royster logged his first full season after three short-season campaigns.
The 2004 sixth-rounder out of high school hit .329 with 30 homers, 98 RBIs and 17 steals along with 31 doubles and a .601 slugging percentage for the league-champion Catfish, homering in six straight games down the stretch. And had the team not seen its last four games rained out in Savannah before the playoffs, odds are he would've padded those stats just enough to have a 30-100-20 season, rare at any level at any time.
"Not too many players had a season like he did in 2007," Lukevics said. "He had one terrific year, and we're so proud of him for taking that next step."
Audio: Royster rips a three-run blast
Audio: Royster launches a walk-off shot
Under the Radar
John Jaso, C
A 2003 12th-round pick, Jaso played more than 100 games last season for the first time after a variety of injuries. Despite the minimal time, he's been a .300 hitter with double-digit power numbers at every level.
He continued that trend in '07, batting .316 with 12 homers and 71 RBIs in 109 games at Montgomery. His catching continues to come around and he has good plate discipline.
Audio: Jaso slugs a go-ahead homer
Audio: Jaso clears the bases
Fernando Perez, OF
The 2004 seventh-rounder was Columbia University's highest draftee ever, and it's not surprising that his smarts rank off the charts. So do his speed and outfield defense.
Added to the 40-man roster during the offseason, Perez is enjoying his first big-league camp and, in all likelihood, will head to Durham as the Bulls' starting center fielder and leadoff hitter in his Triple-A Debut.
Though he missed time with hamstring trouble, Perez hit .308 with 32 steals at Montgomery. In 2006, he was named Visalia's team MVP (despite the fact that teammate Brignac was league MVP) after hitting .307 with 33 steals. He also was Southwest Michigan's MVP in '05 after batting .289 with 57 steals in his first full season.
Some scouts think that some holes in his bat would be exposed as an everyday player in the bigs, that he could be a key guy off the bench and fourth outfielder for many teams in the Majors right now.
Audio: Perez plates two with a single
Audio: Perez belts the first pitch
Heath Rollins, RHP
An 11th-round pick in 2006 out of Winthrop, Rollins made a splash in his first full season by going 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA at Columbus, striking out 149 over 159 1/3 innings and limiting Sally League hitters to a .223 average.
He throws a fastball that sits around 90 and a plus slider, set a Rays Minor League record for wins and tied for tops in the Minors in '07. He followed that by going 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in the playoffs for the champion Catfish.
Audio: Rollins fans his ninth
Mitch Talbot, RHP
So maybe the 13-9 record and 4.53 ERA in 29 starts at Durham don't seem worth singling out. But take out a disastrous start on May 5 in which he gave up 10 earned runs without recording an out and his ERA dips to 3.97. Remove two other forgettable starts (April 24 and July 6) in which he allowed eight runs each time and it's down to 3.28, as Talbot limited International League batters to two earned runs or fewer in 18 of his 26 remaining outings.
Talbot's 2006 season, when he was acquired from Houston, was impressive as he posted a 3.39 ERA at Double-A Corpus Christi and a 1.90 ERA in 10 starts for the Biscuits en route to the Southern League title. He tossed back-to-back complete-game shutouts in the playoffs.
"He has good stuff to compete in the big leagues," said Lukevics. "It's just a matter of throwing it over the plate."
Audio: Talbot K's another
2007 Draft Recap
RHP Will Kline (second round), a 23-year-old out of Mississippi, brought his plus changeup right to Columbus, where he posted a 4.97 ERA in nine games. Sally League foes batted .309 against him in his first taste of the pros. ... RHP Nick Barnese (third round) is a California high schooler with good control of a lively low-90s fastball. He posted a 3.22 ERA in nine starts at Princeton in the Appy League, walking four and striking out 37 over 36 innings. ... CF Emeel Salem (sixth round), drafted out of Alabama, hit .311 with 18 steals at Hudson Valley. ... OF Reid Fronk (seventh round), a North Carolina product, batted .311 with five homers and 27 RBIs for Hudson Valley. ... OF D.J. Jones (11th round) makes his pro debut this season and is a toolsy outfielder with raw stuff and a football pedigree.
Audio: Another K for Kline
Audio: Barnese closes in on his first "W"
Audio: Salem empties the bases
Audio: Fronk singles in a run
Organizational Player of the Year: Desmond Jennings
As long as he's healthy, Jennings will get a full season in the Minors and a chance to show what he can do with his prodigious across-the-board tools.
Organizational Pitcher of the Year: David Price
Though he could land in the big leagues as early as midseason, at this point the Rays are being cautious with the polished product's pro debut and won't rush him. In fact, Price should see enough time to show why he was the undisputed top pick.
Comeback Player of the Year: Matt Walker
A 2004 10th-round pick, Walker posted a 3.18 ERA in 15 starts at Class A Southwest Michigan in 2006, thanks to a sinking fastball in the low-90s and a 12-to-6 curve. But 2007 was a lost season as the right-hander endured an off-field tragedy with the death of his best friend and on-field struggles with his control. His 82 walks were among the Minor League leaders and he moved from the rotation to the 'pen at midseason to work through delivery issues, finishing with a 5.55 ERA in 31 games at Vero Beach. Lukevics and Co. are looking for him to bounce back to 2006 form.
Top Candidate for AL Rookie of the Year: Evan Longoria
He's already a consensus early favorite for the award, so why should we disagree? There's little he can't do and he's unlikely to be fazed by the glitz and glam of the bigs.
"He has 'it.' He loves to play baseball. He has the ability to be a very good big-league player." --Lukevics on Longoria